Q: “I’m a college junior and always feel overwhelmed. I have so much work to do that I’m always busy, but it feels like I’m not making much progress. When I try to focus, I get distracted or interrupted.” — CollegeJunior
Have you ever heard the expression “in the zone?” Some people call it doing deep work or harnessing a flow state.
While in a flow state, you can focus, concentrate, and filter out distractions. It feels like you’re locked into a task and making real progress toward completing it. People in a flow state feel confident, invigorated, and powerful, likely because there is a sense of control and accomplishment surrounding the task.
Entering a flow state can feel natural and even intuitive for some people. For others, especially those with ADHD, finding flow can seem impossible. After all, the very hallmarks of ADHD are difficulty focusing or concentrating and filtering out internal and external distractions. However, almost anyone can create the conditions to achieve a flow state.
Here are my top 10 strategies for creating the conditions for optimum flow.
Look at your calendar and block off periods where you can work without distractions. You may want to schedule these blocks around specific activities or times when you’re naturally more productive and alert or when fewer people are around.
[Free Download: How to Focus (When Your Brain Says ‘No!’)]
My student-coaching clients miss this step the most. They either come to the table not knowing how to use their time, or they do not clearly and specifically define their tasks.
Let me explain.
When you define your work, you need to be as concrete and specific as possible. For example, you may use your time to write a history paper. But within that assignment, there are tasks like “conduct preliminary research,” “craft theme or thesis statement,” or “write the first draft,” etc.
To optimize your time and attention, be as specific and detailed as possible in defining the work ahead. For example, you may define your task as “draft first four pages” or “draft introduction and conclusion.”
To foster accountability, share what you are working on with someone else. Tell your study group. Phone or text a friend. Getting it out of your head and into the universe will help motivate you to finish the work. If you are uncomfortable sharing, then write it down. Many of my students post their intentions on their walls or computers. No matter what you do, please don’t keep it to yourself.
[Free Download: 5 Powerful Brain Hacks for Focus & Productivity]
A fancy word for this concept is “monotasking.” Fun fact: Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get your attention back on a task or project after you’ve been interrupted (or interrupted yourself). 1 In other words, switching between subjects or projects can cost you valuable time.
It’s easier to stay focused if you have a stopping point. If you remember that “done” doesn’t have to mean “completely done,” your work bursts can be more productive and constructive because you’ve already set your expectations. For example, if you only have one hour to work on a project, you can stay on task because you know that you will be done at the end of the hour. And that point of done becomes the starting point for your next work burst.
If you have more than an hour to work on your project, set specific times for a break. Think of this as stringing together bursts with short breaks in between. The breaks give your brain — and body — time to rest and recharge. Use your breaks productively. Go for a quick walk. Stretch or do some short exercises. Have a snack or sip. Switch your location. Please don’t work on another project or do an activity or task that will be hard to stop when your break ends, such as scrolling your social feeds.
Create a “Do Not Disturb” environment. Shut down the tabs or install distraction apps on your computer. Turn off your phone and place it in another room. Having your phone in the same room, even when turned off, can limit cognitive performance. Do whatever you need to physically take yourself off the grid.
Before starting, do some jumping jacks, run in place, or dance around your room. The movement will energize you and get the blood flowing through your body and brain.
Your environment plays a huge role in helping you get in a flow state to complete your work. If you don’t like where you spend your time, you won’t get down to business. Aim to create an environment that motivates you and supports the work you need to do. Consider everything from the room’s color to having a stash of your favorite pens on hand. Don’t forget about food. There is no better magic elixir for conjuring a flow state than food. So, make sure to have your favorite beverage or snack on hand.
Use the time before you tackle a task to prepare your brain for deep work by purposefully performing actions that will ensure a smooth transition into a flow state. For example, before I work on any writing assignment, I check my emails and text messages, shut off my phone and place it in another room, pour my favorite beverage, and turn on my “focus” music. Performing a work ritual allows me to transition easily into deep work.
Creating the optimum conditions for deep work takes time. You’ll need to determine what works for your learning and working style. So don’t get discouraged. Trust yourself. Keep trying different approaches until you find what works best.
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1Mark, G., Gudith, D., & U. Klocke,. (2008). The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 107-110. https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072
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